Man United IPO marries sense and sentiment

SINGAPORE - Much more than a case of raising funds where cash is plentiful, English football club Manchester United's plan to seek $1 billion on Singapore's stock market is a marrying of financial sense and global supporter sentiment - and a resounding indication of where the club sees future growth.

The English Premier League club, de-listed from London's stock exchange in 2005 when it was bought by the American Glazer family, is now saddled with a debt pile that has led to a vilification of the Glazers among fans.

It has also left United in danger of struggling to meet "Financial Fair Play" rules put forward by football's European governing body UEFA.

And while the Glazers have made it clear they have no intention of selling, a flotation in Singapore makes perfect sense on many fronts: it will help reduce the debt burden; it targets Asia's strong economic and investing growth and, crucially, it will deepen United's links with a region ripe for expanding its powerful global brand.

"With two-thirds of their fans residing in Asia, two-thirds of the world living in Asia... there's an attractive audience base to tap into," Singapore-based sports sponsorship expert Ben Heyhoe Flint told Reuters.

"Couple that with high growth markets and high growth brands, and there's a valid commercial reason [for listing in Singapore] in that they are getting closer to potential sponsors in Asia where they've had success before," added Flint, head of Asia-Pacific for sponsorship consultants Fuse.

BIGGEST SPORTING IPO

At an estimated $1 billion, the IPO of Manchester United would be the world's largest for a sports organisation, but small compared to other businesses. Companies typically sell a quarter to a third of their shares in an IPO, giving Manchester United a potential value of up to $4 billion.

"Will people invest? If they open up the IPO to individual investors, and not institutional as is rumoured, then I think you'll find that yes, fans will be drawn into making an emotional investment into their beloved club," Flint said.

"From an institutional point of view, we've seen serious interest in ownership of EPL clubs from Singapore and Thailand recently so I'm sure it will also draw interest at that level."

Last year Singapore billionaire Peter Lim made a 320 million pound bid to buy Liverpool Football Club, but later withdrew the offer after the club went into the hands of New England Sports Ventures following a court ruling.

Lim separately has exclusive rights to own and operate a chain of Manchester United-themed restaurants and bars in Asia.

Not everyone is so confident investors will be eager to pour their money into England's most successful football club, however.

"I guess Manchester United is trying to ride their popularity in Asia," said Roger Tan, head of research at SIAS Research.

"Frankly I do hear that football clubs are not usually profitable so if they are really listing in Singapore, I would suggest potential investors look closely at the numbers. Investing in a club is very different from supporting a club."

United's 2010 full-year results showed gross debt attached to the club of 522 million pounds, with a net loss of 84 million pounds.